A Marx for Our Time: Henri Lefèbvre and The Production of Space
Henri Lefebvre, who died last year at an age between 86 to 89 (the records aren't clear), was perhaps the greatest Marxian thinker since Marx, and certainly one of the greatest philosophers of our time. Sociologists can appreciate his significance by realizing that what they know of Marx`s work itself is quite limited. The latter has been homogenized and simplified by generations of textbook writing and misleading scholarship. To understand Marx it is necessary first to know how he thought and analyzed social phenomena, rather than what he said. By this I mean an understanding of the powerful dialectical schema that Marx developed in his critique of both Hegel and Fichte. Lefebvre was one of the very few analysts of society who really knew how Marx thought, and it is indicative that one of his first books was on Marxian dialectics (Lefebvre 1939). This work contains many of the themes that Lefebvre was to develop later.
In 1974 Lefebvre published a monumental book, The Production of Space, which has just appeared in translation (1991) and which the publisher claims to be "his major philosophical work." I would rank another work, his three-part book The Critique of Everyday Life (which is being translated only now), as his most significant, but the book on space must rank a close second. Yet Lefebvre also has made important contributions to the theory of the state (a four-volume masterpiece), to the sociology of the arts, to poststructuralism, to existentialism, to scholarship on Descartes, Pascal, Nietzsche (as early as 1939), and Lukacs, among other thinkers, and to the theory of modernity/postmodernity. What I like most about Lefebvre is how he engaged his time. He did not write in isolation, but lived the life of a Parisian intellectual and participated in lively debates with others about the nature of Marxism, political action, the intellectual foundations of structuralism, poststructuralism, postmodernity, and (reaching back) existentialism. Consequently he took the trouble both to read the work of others and to attempt a dialogue in his writing a rarity among American academics. When reading Lefebvre, one can find all sorts of sometimes veiled, sometimes explicit references to the current ideas and books in the Parisian milieu, which may escape the uninformed reader.
I welcome the appearance in translation of The Production of Space,  but it is, not clear how it will be received by the new urban geographers and by the sociologists who take less sophisticated approaches, such as human ecology or the ideas in the much-publicized book by Logan and Molotch (1987). Both Manuel Castells and David Harvey, often claimed by urbanists to be the seminal thinkers of the new urbanism, owe an immense, unacknowledged debt to Lefebvre. The latter, by writing a series of six books on urbanism beginning in 1968, deserves the title of progenitor. Most important, both Castells and Harvey developed several of Lefebvre`s ideas which appeared before the culminating 1974 work on space, and which do not have the benefit of the polished, completed arguments.
In Dialectical Materialism ( 1968) Lefebvre analyzed Marxian political economy at a time when he was breaking with Stalinism and the Communist Party. No doubt he was reacting to dogmatism and orthodoxy (as well as to Stalin`s politics), and this reaction was reflected in a critical reading of Marx's Capital. Lefebvre noted that the latter work was essentially about time the extraction and circulation of surplus value. Lefebvre believed that Marxian political economy neglected the material aspect of production: the world of commodities existed in space as well as time. In 1939 he announced that the dialectic was spatial as well as temporal, and that this realization put Marx's system in a new light. Lefebvre went literally to the material dimension of dialectics. In his view, the production activity of capitalism resulted in a space that is, a materiality. Furthermore, this "space" possessed its own dialectical moment. Like the other categories of Marxian thought money, labor power it was a concrete abstraction. That is, space was both a material product of social relations (the concrete) and a manifestation of relations, a relation itself (the abstract). It was as much a part of social relations as was time. In short, by applying Marxian thought to Marx, Lefebvre arrived at insights that transcended Marxian political economy and pointed away from dogma. He needed the next 30 years to work out the implications of these early revelations.
The Production of Space is a complex work, at once historical, philosophical, semiotic, and Marxist. It was written at a time when both Althusserianism and deconstructionism were salient, and there are many asides to thinkers who follow these persuasions. It is also a mature work, in which Lefebvre`s command of his dialectical thinking is quite masterful. In Fichtean dialectics and in much deconstructionist or structuralist thought, analytical categories are perceived as oppositions or antinomies. Lefebvre wants nothing to do with this Manichean view because it usually results in static contrasts. Marx's dialectical moments were flowing, manifold, and complex, especially with regard to "the negation," a concept that I believe only Adorno and Lefebvre have really understood. According to Lefebvre, dialectical moments are expressed as "triplicite" as three terms, not two. The third term instantly deconstructs static oppositions or dualisms, and adds a fluid dimension to social process.
The most important "triple" concerns grasping the importance of space according to its manifestations as perceived, conceived and lived. Ever since his early break with orthodox Marxism, Lefebvre had been concerned with avoiding reductionist economism. This triple is meant to convey that space has a complex character and enters social relations at all levels. It is at once a physical environment that can be perceived; a semiotic abstraction that informs both how ordinary people negotiate space (the mental maps studied by geographers) and the space of corporations, planners, politicians, and the like; and, finally, a medium through which the body lives out its life in interaction with other bodies. Social relations also are spatial, relations; we cannot talk about the one without the other.
In working with this triple relation, Lefebvre attempts to avoid reductionism, whether it is of the economistic (Marxist) or the idealistic (deconstructionist) kind. He proposes a unitary theory of space that ties together the physical, the mental, and the social. Developing this generalized approach to space even further, Lefebvre introduces a second triple that amplifies the first. Space is simultaneously a spatial practice (an externalized, material environment), a representation of space (a conceptual model used to direct practice), and a space of representation (the lived social relation of users to the environment).
In much of the early part of his book, Lefebvre applies this triple distinction to the analysis of different environments. His approach combines geographical, historical, and semiotic analysis, thereby avoiding reductionism. He focuses on how various societies have particularized space in both form and meaning over time. Lefebvre accomplishes this task by considering the distinction between abstract space and social space. Abstract space is constituted by the intersection of knowledge and power. It is the hierarchical space that is pertinent to those who wish to control social organization, such as political rulers, economic interests, and planners. Social space, in contrast, arises from practice the everyday lived experience that is externalized and materialized through action by all members of society, even the rulers. Persons working from the model of abstract space continually try to reign in and control the social space of everyday life, with its constant changes, whereas social space always transcends conceived boundaries and regulated forms.
Finally, both abstract and social space involve the triplicite: mental imaging, perceptions of built forms, and social practice. In particular, the conception of space always precedes spatial practice for humans; That is, mental projection, or the semiotic model of space, and physical construction, or externalization, are always related. Using these concepts, Lefebvre walks the reader through western European history, attempting to show how certain isolated changes in the triple conjuncture of space actually involved qualitative historical movements. Greek space, for example, is ruled by a cosmic, abstract sense of religion and geometry. Rome, in contrast, is sullied by the practice of power; space is edified by humans themselves. Thus, says Lefebvre, the Greek agora (an abstract space) is empty and is proportioned uniformly by the golden mean, so that the Greeks can meet there and do what they will in unity with the cosmos. "The Roman Forum, on the other hand, is full of objects" (1991, p. 275).
This part of the text, where Lefebvre applies his approach to history, lacks the strong comparative understanding of Max Weber or Ferdinand Braudel; neither does it measure up to the way in which some current geographers might undertake an historical analysis of space. It also seems somewhat diffuse and nonsystematized as semiotic analysis, compared to more recent attempts at defining a semiotic approach to space. To his credit, Lefebvre never suggests that there is some "evolutionary" principle altering the humanspace relation, only that this relation changes according to differences in social organization. In sum, his contribution lies in the balanced, integrated analysis that ties together semiotics, political relations, and economic relations rather than solely in plumbing the depths of historical analysis.
In the latter part of the book, beginning with Chapter 5, Lefebvre addresses capitalism and the maturing industrial society, and here his work shines. He introduces his main theoretical concept, "the production of space." Every mode of social organization produces an environment that is a consequence of the social relations it possesses. In addition, by producing a space according to its own nature, a society not only materializes into distinctive built forms, but also reproduces itself. The concept "production of space" means what Giddens calls the "duality of structure." That is, space is both a medium of social relations and a material product that can affect social relations. This dialectical idea is a major tenet of the "new urban sociology."
The production of space under capitalism involves the fragmentation and homogenization of space, just as is the case with other commodities "under the law of the reproducible and the repetitive" (1991, p. 375). Small wonder new suburbs all look the same. Lefebvre introduces his approach into Marxian political economy, and at this point he reaches the core of his theory: "All Marxist concepts are taken to a higher level without any one stage in theory disappearing. The leconsideration of Marxist concepts develops optimally by taking account fully of space" (p. 342). By appreciating space, by taking account of it explicitly, we pass beyond Marxian political economy without abandoning the critical approach to capitalism that Marx introduced.
For example, Lefebvre returns to the Marx of Capital and reminds us of a crucial point: this book was only one part of a larger project (see The Grundrisse). Marx's analysis of capitalism in the abstract was based on the contrast between abstract labor and capital, according to a "binary" dialectical schema that involved oppositions such as wages-profits, worker-capitalist, and so on. Yet in the historical conditions of capitalism's emergence a third element, the land, also was present and supported a separate class in the early stages of growth. Marx finally introduces this third term at the end of Capital, and calls its relation to the other basic units of society the "trinity formula." Lefebvre likes this notion of the trinity because it resonates with his dialectics, and he seizes on it as a way of upgrading Marxian political economy.
According to Lefebvre, land and its advanced capitalist relations of production, which he calls "real estate," constitute a second circuit of capital, even though a separate class of landowners no longer exists. That is, the channeling of money, the construction of housing, the development of space, financing, and speculation in land constitute a second means of acquiring wealth that is relatively independent of the "first" circuit, industrial production. Furthermore, through an extended discussion, Lefebvre shows that this second circuit is one of the fundamental forces of society and a source of surplus value creation. Finally, he argues effectively that it has a logic of its own, even though it is related to the primary circuit. In short, the Marxian analysis of capitalism, by accounting for space, will never be the same again. Furthermore, these concepts of Lefebvre`s became the basis for "the new urban sociology," which continues to expand.its influence in the field.
Whenever I read Lefebvre I am reminded of Barthes's phrase "the pleasures of the text," because he is a joy to read. In a virtuoso display of dialectical reasoning, for example, he discusses how the advance of capitalist industrialization superimposes abstract space, the quantified space, everywhere. The qualitative aspect of space, however, cannot be absorbed by this movement. "It re-emerges when the ‘spaces of consumption’ become the ‘consumption of space’" (1991, p. 352). When does this occur? In tourism, for example, "when people seek a qualitative space sun, snow, the sea" (1991, p. 352); when capitalism transforms the circulation of commodities for people into the circulation of people through commodified places.
At another point in the text, Lefebvre`s dialectic penetrates to the heart of an important matter and displays insights that transcend the narrow view of political economy. In the past, he suggests, commodities themselves were scarce but resources were abundant. Political economy was founded on asceticism the necessity of making choices under scarcity. Today, in contrast, there is an abundance of commodities, but our natural resources have become scarce. "This dialectical movement has never been analyzed in itself the focus on pollution, the environment, noise, exhaustion of resources just masks it" (1991, p. 376). With this insight the book becomes a great work of environmentalism. According to Lefebvre, the individual aspects of environmental decay, such as racist, economic, or chemical issues, are not of most concern. Rather, we must focus on the production of space. In this case, capitalist industrialization has destroyed nature and is replacing it with a "second nature." The balance between the organic and the human environment is disappearing across the globe because of the production and extension of a second nature the concrete, material world of organized society (1991, pp. 343 - 45). That is the heart of the matter.
Finally, Lefebvre makes a brilliant contribution to our understanding of the state. His thinking is particulary pertinent when he analyzes the relation between power and space, a characteristic that is wholly ignored by the new urban geographers, among others. Space is not only homogenized and fragmented but also hierarchical and a framework of power. Lefebvre`s discussion of the relationship between the state and space is inspirational. Now that the work is available in translation, I wonder whether, or how soon, it will influence studies on the state, especially the historical role of state regulation through spatial means.
Lefebvre would not be a critical theorist if he did not leave us with a liberatory position that we could adopt after his extended philosophical discussion. Social change, according to Lefebvre, cannot occur in a planned way without the production of a changed space. As he suggests, the Russian revolution failed precisely when the drive to create a new, revolutionary space, such as that implicit in the work of the Russian constructivists, also failed. To change life means to change space as well. Before the appearance of this book Lefebvre expressed this idea as the right to the city; along with other aspects of his thought, it was highly influential among students during the events of May 1968 in France. The transformation of social relations, Lefebvre believes, means a transforrnation of sociospatial relations, a production of a new, liberatory space.
In conclusion, I wish to make some observations about the translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith. On the whole he has done a masterful job. In places he has even made the citations more explicit. The translator has been very careful to preserve the intent of Lefebvre's ideas. For example, when describing the changes in Roman civilization, Lefebvre uses an opposition "crypt/decrypt" to explain certain developments in the relation to space. There is no English word "decrypt"; yet the translator preserves it in order to follow the literal meaning of Lefebvre`s analysis.
As in all translations, however, some aspects of the original are lost. Nicholson-Smith tends to use sophisticated synonyms. One of the pleasures of reading Lefebvre, however, comes from appreciating his exquisite use of language; he says things directly and clearly but not simplistically. Some of this wonderful use of words is lost. Also, Lefebvre is in the habit of making puns, and I`m afraid the translator missed these. Finally, the edition by Blackwell Publishers includes an afterword by David Harvey. Considering how little Lefebvre's influence has been acknowledged in the past, I found this inclusion of Harvey in the project both ironic and, quite simply, just another example of appropriation.
This text was first published in: Sociological Theory A Journal of the American Sociological Association 11/1, March 1993.
Prof. Dr. Mark Gottdiener teaches at the Department of Sociology, State University of New York, Buffalo
among his books are:
Gottdiener, M: “The Theming of America”, Boulder 2001
Gottdiener, M: “Postmodern Semiotics : Material Culture and the Forms of Postmodern Life”, Oxford 1995
Gottdiener, M: “The New Urban Sociology”, New York 1994
Gottdiener, M: “The Social Production of Urban Space”, Austin1985
 Here I have in mind not only the simplistic introductory texts, which focus almost exclusively on the concept of class and on Marx's "evolutionary" theory of history, but also the misleading and quite limited variations on "conflict theory," which take conflict, a non-specified, naturally occurring phenomenon, and impute it to Marxian historical analysis as the phenomenal core.
 Some sociologists believe that the dialectic involves thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In fact, this mode of thinking belongs to Fichte and has nothing to do with Marx's dialectic. Marx's approach derives from Hegel`s notion of the phenomenon, the negation, and the negation of the negation, but he understands this movement according to both the ontological position that all phenomena possess a base in the material world and the epistemological position that movement across the dialectical moment is understood through the relation between deep structure and surface level; This position also is adopted by realist theoreticians (Bhaskar 1979).
 Lefebvre published 66 books. He started around the age of 30 and published some of his very best writing, 25 books, after the age of 65!
 A complete bibliography appears at the end of Production of Space ( 1991).
 My favorite aside appeared in The Survival of Capitalism ( 1974), where Lefebvre summarized his response to Althusser`s ponderous schema as follows: "If you can understand it, good luck to you."
 My book The Social Production Of Urban Space (1985) was inspired directly by Lefebvre. It is a critical commentary on the writings of others, such as Castells and Harvey, in this light because of their reductionism and their neglect of the concept "space," which is at once serniotic, political, and economic.
 I can summarize the positions briefly as follows: Harvey used the writings of Lefebvre that appeared in the late 1960s, before Lefebvre developed the more mature notion of "space," and made a contribtition by systematically applying the categories of political economy to urban phenomena. But therein also lies Harvey`s economic reductionism. Castells wrote a critique of Lefebvre's writings from the 1960s, using Althusserian structuralism, and presented an approach to urban social movements that was more comprehensive than Lefebvre`s. Since then, however, none of Castells's work has had much to do with "space," and lately he has lapsed into technological reductionism. In sum, it is precisely by remaining true to Lefebvre's project, as outlined in the book on space, that we avoid all forms of reductionism in the analysis of urban phenomena (see Gottdiener 1985; Gottdiener and Lagopoulos 1986).
 Several years ago, for example, some theorists discussed the "micro/macro" split in social analysis. This simple scheme can be deconstructed instantly by the addition of a third term, such as the "meso" level of society, and thereby can acquire greater complexity.
 This insight was adopted by Giddens and Jameson, among others.
 Lefebvre's book is infused with urban semiotics. For example, he mentions the work of Lagopoulos in passing (but see Gottdiener and Lagopoulos 1986)
 Giddens uses this concept in his writings but seems to be unaware that Lefebvre developed it.
 As Marxist scholars know, The Grundrisse (Marx  1973), not Capital, is the comprehensive work. It is also the best place to observe Marx`s mastery of dialectics.
 These ideas already have been put into practice. Harvey used the circuit model of capitalism with much influence among geographers, although he compounded and altered it. Some urbanists, such as Logan and Molotch (1987), suggest fallaciously that the separate class of landowners still exists, and their analysis suffers accordingly. Gottdiener (1985, 1987) has elaborated further on Lefebvre's political economy of space. Many other urbanists and, more recently, postmodern scholars, have incorporated the presence of a relatively autonomous spatial domain into their analyses. Jameson, for example, who says a great deal about space and its importance to postmodern thinking, was influenced greatly by Lefebvre. Feagin (1998) has written a brilliant analysis of Houston, using this perspective. A new textbook on urban sociology soon will be published as well (Gottdiener forthcoming).
Bhaskar, Roy. 1979. A Realist Theory of Science. Leeds: UK Book Publishing.
Feagin, Joe R. 1988. Houston: Free Enterprise City. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Gottdiener, M. 1985. The Social Production of Urban Space. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- 1987. "Space as a Force of Production." International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 11(3): 405-17.
- Forthcoming. The New Urban Sociology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Gottdiener, M. and A. Lagopoulos. 1986. The City and the Sign. New York: Columbia University Press.
Lefebvre, Henri. (1939) 1968. Dialectical Materialism. London: Jonathan Cape, 1968.
- (1973) 1974. The Survival of Capitalism. London: Allison.& Busby.
-  1991. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Logan, John and Harvey Molotch. 1987. Urban Fortunes. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Marx, Karl. (1939) 1973. The Grundrisse. New York: Vintage.